The histories of jazz, piano, and Cuban music have intersected on numerous occasions, writing memorable pages in 20th century popular music. Few mergers as natural as jazz with Afro-Cuban, one of the oldest that the genre had, with references that date back to the 1940s, such as Chano Pozo, Mario Bauzá or Cándido Camero, who helped lay the foundations of that fusion that survives today with all the different forms of Latin jazz. On the second day of this year’s Jazzaldia, Cuba colonized the stage of the Plaza de la Trinidad, with the full presence of Cuban musicians in two concerts led by two great piano names: Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Chucho Valdés.
Rubalcaba is one of the most overwhelming pianists of his generation, and in his performances in San Sebastián it was clear that, despite a somewhat irregular recording career in recent years, he is still an extraordinary musician. Probably for logistical reasons due to the pandemic, he performed in a duet with the singer Aymee Nuviola, with whom he published last year Wind and weather, an album recorded at the Blue Note in Tokyo with a full band. The duo format took the songs to a completely different place than it would have been with a band, more intimate, although without losing the pulse and the Latin force behind them. The versions of classic boleros like Kiss Me a lot Y Dos gardenias than more deliberately festive vehicles, such as the Bemba colorá made famous by Celia Cruz, who in the hands of Nuviola touched the popular verbena. The singer had great moments, and the difficulty of raising that music only with piano and voice is not a small thing, but there were some parts in which the line that separates Latin excellence and the summer chiringuito concert was blurred. On the other hand, as if they were sounds from a parallel concert, Rubalcaba’s solo passages were all sensational, with articulate, eloquent, brilliant phrasing. Pure gold.
Chucho Valdés, who joined the festival lineup at the last minute, after the cancellation of Mulatu Astatke, received the Donostiako Jazzaldia award on the same stage as his father, the great Bebo Valdés, 18 years earlier. Perhaps inspired by the emotionality of the moment, and because Chucho, now almost in his eighties, seems to be still in full musical form, his concert in San Sebastián was reminiscent of his best moments; Valdés is a great pianist, but live he has proven to be capable of the best and the worst, depending on the day, often a victim of the temptation to fall into excess and the pyrotechnics that some audiences welcome so well. In Jazzaldia there was something of this – some solos with many notes and little content – but not enough to spoil the concert as a whole, which regained its pulse every time it seemed that it was going to get out of hand.
The band was also key: composed of three excellent Cuban musicians based in Madrid, the double bass player Reinier The negron Elizarde, the drummer Georvis Pico and the percussionist Pedro Pablo Rodríguez, accompanied Valdés with true mastery, making the quartet a powerful engine of Latin rhythms. Valdés and his people went through the guajira, el son, a tribute to Chick Corea in the form of his classic Armando’s Rhumba and included a medley of jazz standards in which Valdés chained solo classics such as My Foolish Heart, My Romance, People Y Waltz For Debby, before leading to a But Not For Me who played the whole band. A whole journey through different episodes of the musical life of Valdés or, what is almost the same, of Latin jazz of the last decades.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.